Election results showed the ruling Nepali Congress party was leading on Wednesday and could emerge as the single largest group, said analysts who expect a hung parliament to give new political parties a decisive role in forming the government.
About 61% of roughly 18 million Nepalis voted in Sunday's elections for the 275 members of the Himalayan nation's parliament, where 165 seats will be decided on a first-past-the-post basis and the rest by proportional representation.
The Nepali Congress of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba has won 13 of 22 results declared, with three each going to the main opposition Nepal Communist Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) party and the newly formed National Independent Party (NIP).
Deuba's party, which contested 91 seats, was leading in 42 races, while its main rival UML, contesting 141 seats, was ahead in 43 and the NIP in five of the 135 constituencies where votes were being counted.
A five-time prime minister, Deuba won his remote Dadeldhura constituency for the seventh straight time since 1991.
The Maoist Centre, a dominant partner in the ruling coalition, is leading in 14 seats and has won just two seat in the parliament.
But final results could be about 10 days away, as election officials need to count millions of paper ballots manually.
SIXTH TERM FOR DEUBA
Deuba, 76, may need the support of his alliance partners as well as some new parties to become prime minister for a sixth time, as his party is unlikely to win the majority of seats, analysts said.
"I see a hung parliament where new political parties of young leaders with vision could play a key role in the formation of the new government," said political analyst Geja Sharma Wagle.
Voters had not entirely jettisoned the old parties, however, he said, adding that they "want them to change and work for the people".
Nepal, a natural buffer between giant Asian rivals India and China, has changed governments 10 times since its 239-year old monarchy was abolished in 2008.
That instability has fuelled corruption, hampering economic growth and slowed recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Nepali Congress party is seen as pro-India, while the UML is considered closer to China. Both jostle for influence in Nepal, pouring in aid and investment in infrastructure.
Analysts say the election outcome could decide which gets the upper hand in the battle for influence in a nation rich in hydropower and home to the world's highest peak, Mount Everest.
(Writing by Manoj Kumar; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)